Exodus: Subversive Women

The agents of resistance to Pharaoh’s policy of genocide are women.

Universally autocrats seem to assume that when they issue decrees, the populace will obey them without question. They can be surprised when opposition surfaces in unexpected places.

This is the case when Pharaoh issues his decree that all newborn male Israelites are to be killed. He particularly summons the midwives who attend the birth of Israelite children and orders them to carry out his policy. But they ignore his orders because, the text says, that they feared God (Exodus 1:17).

Infuriated, Pharaoh summons them again to interrogate them on the reason for their non-compliance. The two women are shrewd. They give an explanation that offers a plausible explanation, but one that hides their true motives. Learning that he cannot depend upon the midwives to do his bidding, he issues a new decree that the boy babies are to be thrown into the Nile. Pharaoh, the autocrat, is thwarted by two women. 

We then pass to chapter 2 of Exodus, which recounts the birth of Moses. The child is in extreme danger, because he is a boy. His mother, however, manages to hide the child from any prying authorities for a full three months. Once again a woman has managed to skirt around the Pharaoh’s vigilant eye.

Pharaoh’s daughter deliberately and consciously works counter to her father’s policy. How did she get away with it?

When after three months, it is no longer feasible to keep the child hidden, Moses’ mother comes up with another daring strategy, one fraught with potential danger. She constructs a water-proof basket, places the child in the basket, and sets the basket afloat in the Nile River among shoreline reeds. She also sets her daughter Miriam to keep watch over its fate. In some ways, it is an act of desperation, but it is imbued with hope.

Opposition Within Pharaoh’s Family

Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses. Image by Gustave Dore

By chance Pharaoh’s daughter passes by on her way to bathe in the Nile. She hears the child cry and asks a maid to fetch it. When she views the child in the basket, she recognizes that it is a Hebrew child. As a member of the royal family, we would expect her to turn the baby over to her father’s agents so it could be destroyed. Instead she takes pity on it and determines to bring it into her household and eventually to adopt it as her son. 

This is remarkable. Pharaoh’s daughter deliberately and consciously works counter to her father’s policy. How did she get away with it? We are not told. But opposition to Pharaoh and his policy of genocide has arisen within Pharaoh’s own household and family. And the source of that opposition is a woman.

Nowhere in these opening paragraphs of Exodus are we told of any opposition to Pharaoh arising from the men of his entourage or from the Israelite men. It is the women who work against the policy. In Egyptian as well as Israelite society women were expected to be passive elements of society. Action is reserved for men. But Exodus shows us the effectiveness of resistance that arises up from the most unexpected places.

The Book of Exodus will tell the story of a major upheaval in which the powerless will be empowered and the power of the powerful diminished. That theme begins at the very start with these accounts of subversive women. 

Author’s Note:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

One who admired and identified with these women in the Exodus story was the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 2015 she wrote a short Passover essay lauding the courage and subversive initiative of these women. She titled it “The Heroic and Visionary Women of the Passover.” She wrote of them: These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day. Framed on the wall in her Supreme Court office was a quotation from Deuteronomy 16:20 which begins with the Hebrew words Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, which translate into Justice, justice you shall pursue. We see how an ancient story can continue to inspire into the present. 

Exodus: Neutralize the Alien

Paranoia about immigration fuels Pharaoh’s campaign against the Israelites.

Egyptian tomb painting of immigrants entering Egypt

The first chapter of Exodus sets the stage for the story of Israel’s liberation by describing the genocidal policy Pharaoh launches against the Israelites living in Egypt. The policy begins with the imposition of hard labor upon the Israelites. When that does not work, then Pharaoh decrees that all newly born Israelite boys are to be killed. 

Why this hostile policy? What fear drives it? What is it intended to achieve? The first chapter of Exodus answers those questions.

These opening verses remind us that Israel had entered Egypt as a single family of some 70 persons. Over the years (unspecified), the family grows to a considerable size, becoming a noticeable social entity of resident immigrants living in Egypt.

This raises an anxiety within Pharaoh (and presumably the native Egyptian populace). Pharaoh expresses this anxiety in Exodus 1:9-10:

He said to the people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape the land.”

Seeds of Pharaoh’s Fear

The fear is that the Israelites are becoming a potential fifth column within the land in the case of a war with invaders. They might throw their lot in with the invaders, adding to the invaders’ military strength. Or they might use an invasion to migrate out of Egypt, thereby presumably dealing a serious blow to the Egyptian economy. 

The Egyptian fear was not unwarranted. Most scholars believe that the historical setting for the Exodus story probably lies within the 19th dynasty in Egypt (1305-1224 B.C.). Egyptians of this era had not forgotten a time in their history when they had in fact been ruled by a foreign Semitic dynasty, called the Hyksos (1650-1550 B.C.), which had either invaded or migrated from western Asia. 

Egyptians remembered it as a period of national humiliation. It apparently left a serious scar on the psyche of ancient Egyptians. When the 18th dynasty restored native Egyptian rule, Egyptian policy determined never to let another such humiliation to occur. This drove the 18th dynasty’s imperial expansion into Canaan and Syria. By building garrisons in these areas as well as by bringing local city states into vassal relationships, the Egyptians hoped to block any potential invasion long before it reached Egyptian borders. 

So the fears of Pharaoh, as expressed in Exodus 1, ring true with what we know about ancient Egyptian history. The fears had roots in their history.

Neutralizing the Threat

Pharaoh seeks to neutralize the potential threat posed by the Israelites His first policy was to implement a policy placing the Israelites under oppressive forced labor. The Israelites were compelled to work on the construction of two Egyptian cities. 

Although it is common to label the oppression of the Israelites as a form of slavery, it is important to note that it was not chattel slavery, like the slavery endured by black slaves in America. The Israelites were not property owned by Egyptians. But they were placed in bondage nonetheless through being compelled to engage in involuntary labor. 

We are not told exactly why Pharaoh chose this particular policy. Possibly he hoped that Israelite men would be so exhausted from their daily labor that they would have no energy or time for sex. But the text says the policy did not work. The Israelite population continued to multiply, to Pharaoh’s alarm.

Pharaoh chose to intensify the oppression by decreeing a policy that can be described as genocidal in intent. He decreed that all new-born male Israelite babies should be killed. Once again one wonders about his thinking. Boys were the future labor force. Why stifle this source of labor? It was the Israelite women who bore the babies. It would have been more effective to decree the deaths of girl babies rather than boy babies. 

Though it is not stated explicitly, Egyptian fears might be capsulized in the fear that the Israelites might replace them, the native Egyptians. This is an age-old fear in societies that experience significant immigration from different ethnic groups. It is the fear that fuels much white nationalism in America today. 

Scripture’s Bias

How does an established society and culture deal with a major infusion of people who do not share the same characteristics as the dominant ethnic group? The dominant ethnic group can feel threatened and therefore adopt policies to stanch the feared influx. Policies can include restricted immigration, exclusionary policies in employment or residence, cultural vilification, segregation, and even genocide.

One can hope that a dominant ethnic group can come to be flexible enough to accommodate the stranger and to adapt cultural attitudes to recognize the cultural and economic fertility that can result from a blending of ethnic groups.* But that hope is not often realized in human history. Fear trumps tolerance. 

Over and over again in the Old Testament, in the Torah as well as the psalms and prophets, we find passages that advocate compassion towards the resident alien or immigrant. It is a distinct Old Testament bias.

Israelite law, however, throws it weight behind acceptance and accommodation. Over and over again in the Old Testament, in the Torah as well as the psalms and prophets, we find passages that advocate compassion towards the resident alien or immigrant. It is a distinct Old Testament bias. Here are a few examples:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.(Exodus 23:9)

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God[a] and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.  For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.(Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 17-19)

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

             The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
                        the Lord loves the righteous.
            The Lord watches over the sojourners;
                       he upholds the widow and the fatherless;
                       but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Psalm 146:8-9)

The New Testament’s Voice

This Old Testament bias continues into the New Testament, most notably into the parable of the last judgment told by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46. What separates the sheep who enter God’s kingdom from the goats who are expelled is their treatment of the marginalized of society: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, and the stranger. 

It gets further attention in Paul’s writings as he expounds upon the equality of Jews and Gentiles within the household of faith. Both belong within that household; both have something to contribute. Exclusion and segregation become for Paul a denial of Christ. (The most explicit discussions of this theme come in the Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Ephesians.)

The sympathies of Israelite law, which mirrors the sympathies of God, rest with the oppressed in society, including the immigrant who comes across as an alien to the dominant ethnic group. The Biblical tradition expects the dominant status quo in society to adapt rather than exclude the alien. The Book of Exodus shows what happens when the powers of society do not. 


* Jazz as a distinctive American musical genre is a good example. Its origins lie in the African-American community of New Orleans. It represents one of the richest contributions made by a minority ethnic group to American culture as a whole.